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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

Bringing Your Silent Auction Online: A Guide to a Successful Event

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Need help with your upcoming online event? We provide tech support and event production for all virtual meetings, trainings, workshops and conferences ranging from 1 hour to multiday events. Check out details at here!


COVID-19 has hit the nonprofit community hard, and has especially taken a toll on fundraising efforts. Shifting everything online takes planning. Pre-COVID, did your nonprofit do a silent auction? If so, that is something that you can still integrate into your online event.

Silent Auctions may feel intimidating at first, but breaking it down into manageable steps makes it easier! This guide should help you create and host a successful virtual silent auction.


10 Months Before Your Event

Like any major project, set goals and create a detailed timeline for your team.

Ten months out from your event, you should put together a team of great communicators who are connected to businesses in your community. This is the best way to fill your auction up with great items.

This is where goal-setting is critical. Achievable and concrete goals will set your team up for success. A timeline of important milestones is a good place to start. In the timeline, make sure you give your team enough time to gather all the information and obtain enough items. Start 10-12 months in advance and begin to think of your audience and what types of items work well with them. (Be sure to track the items and their value in a spreadsheet along the way!)

Tip #1: Send an email to your volunteers and staff; you never know who knows who!

Another helpful goal is how many items total you want, and then how those

items will look in a package. Setting monthly goals will keep your team on track–for example: “each month each member gets 10 items”. It's best to track progress via a monthly team meeting and adjust goals as needed during them.


8-9 Months Before Your Event

Now it's time to pick a platform, look for items, and bundle them!

There are some great platforms out there, but all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. Because no silent auction is the same, it's important to do your research and see which one will best suit your organization. Some great options are: AES, Handbid, GiveSmart, and OneCause.

Tip #2: Ask if the platforms offer a free demo or training, many of them do!

When looking for items, be mindful of what your bidders will most likely bid on, for example: gyms and fitness classes have not done well in the past so limit these

items or try to pair with a workout outfit or gift card. Steer clear of too many similar items, as they will saturate your auction and you risk receiving low bids for them.

Examples of items that sell:

  • Vacations/Vacation homes

  • Adventurous outdoor activities (Hot air balloon, sky diving, hut trip, fly fishing

  • tour)

  • At-home spa day

  • Autographed memorabilia

  • Catered in-home meals (delivered) or virtual wine tasting

  • Pet accessories

  • Custom artwork / Custom items

  • High-end goods such as house-wares and jewelry

Now, you may be thinking, "won't COVID-19 affect some of these items?" and you're correct. Be wary of local restrictions placed on travel and closed spaces. To ease your bidders' minds, keep it local–not only will bidders feel more comfortable staying

local, you will be supporting local businesses during hard times. Additionally, tangible items are going to be hotter than they usually are; this gives bidders a chance to participate even when they are practicing “Safer at Home” guidelines. Pet items, housewares and gardening items, and in-home activities like an at-home spa day or wine tasting are all going to be key this year.

Be careful with gym packages, long-distance traveling, tickets to large gatherings such as sports games and concerts, and flight packages, as these all run the risk of no or low bids due to fears and restrictions around COVID-19.

Packaging the items in your auction is key. No item is too small! You can always create amazing packages where those ten $20 items become the most popular. Have fun with them, use themes, and employ unique ideas to get your bidders interested!


6-7 Months Before Your Event

Everyone should be making confident, targeted asks.

From this point forward, your team should be making item asks if they haven't already. It may feel intimidating at first, but it's important to address your fears. What if they say no? What if they're mean to me? Am I asking for too much?

All of these are valid fears, but it's important to be fearless when asking for an auction item. Keep in mind:

  • You are asking your community to help an important cause!

  • You aren't asking for yourself

  • You are giving them an opportunity they might not have had before to give to the community

  • You are giving them an opportunity to market their business

  • You are a giver not a taker!

  • Email is an amazing thing (no face-to-face interaction)

Overall, be concise and direct with your ask, research the business you're asking, follow up, and say thank you A LOT.

Tip #3: Target businesses you know and love! Give them praise! They will feel honored that you thought of them and how great of an auction item their product would be.

Remember, the first ask is always the hardest, but it just gets easier with practice. Get out there and make some asks!


4-5 Months Before Your Event

Price your items, bundle into packages, and prepare for bidding.

Fill in the gaps with consignment items, and be sure to shop around and be aware of any travel restrictions on the items. Even if you break even from these items think of the big items as marketing and a great way to get bigger bidders interested in your auction. If you know you are not going to break even or make a profit, then you can return the item to the consignment organization by having a house bidder bid on the live item.

Price your items. Open the bidding at around 30 or 40 percent of the retail price. This allows for an adequate margin to break even on your items. The bid increments should be at least 15 percent. Setting your bid increments too high can turn away donors. Lower increments can help generate excitement and maybe even a bidding war!

Tip #4: Add instant donations! Be sure to add instant donations to your online bidding platforms. This will allow those who don’t win an item to still give to your organization.

The Day is Here

It's time to prep yourself for the event. Get excited!

Here are a few reminders to make sure you're ready to tackle your auction:

  • Ensure (several times) that your packages are all entered correctly in your system. The worst scenario is that you packaged items twice and now do not have the items to give the winner! Or, you didn’t add the fine print and now you have an angry winner who can only use the vacation they purchased during the off-season.

  • Set up a plan to get the items to the winner, this could be hand delivering, having a pickup spot, or mailed/emailed. Make sure you organize all of your donations so they are easy to disperse and won’t delay delivery.

  • Double and Triple check that you have all the items, who donated what, and the items’ monetary value so that when you send thank you’s to all donors after the event, you know the exact dollar amount of the specific item they donated.

  • Keep track of the item values as they will need these for their records.

  • Ensure donors’ names and addresses are correct, don’t be afraid to reach out if you are unsure. You want to make sure that every donor (no matter the item) gets a personalized thank you.



The event is over, but there may still be some loose ends to tie up.

What happens if a donor doesn’t pay? Reach out to them via email

and phone call to see if they would still like the item. Don’t demand

payment but politely ask if they are interested in the item and if they

say yes, ask them how they would like to pay for the item.

What happens if the donor doesn’t want the item anymore? Contact

the second and then third place winners on the item and see if they

are interested in purchasing the item at their last bid price they


What happens if no one wants the item? Check if there is an expiration. If there is not an expiration, you just got your first item for next year’s auction! If there is, reach out to the donor and see if they would be willing to extend the expiration. Lastly, reach out to your volunteer and auction team and see if anyone would be interested in purchasing the item at a discounted rate.

Most importantly. Send a personal thank you to all businesses that donated even if it’s a small item, set up a time to do these with your team. They will be tedious but it’s best to send handwritten thank you’s and a tax form. To be safe, always email the tax form as well and let them know you will also be sending them a paper copy.


Need help with your upcoming online event? We provide tech support and event production for all virtual meetings, trainings, workshops and conferences ranging from 1 hour to multiday events. Check out details here!

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